In the heat of summer we are naturally drawn to water, and for centuries water has been a vital element in Oriental gardens. In the ninth century, the Chinese poet Po-Chu-i (known as Hakurakuten in Japan) wrote about a small pond in his garden, and his words still evoke the timeless pleasures of the waterside:

In the day-time, the front room is unbearably warm;
But how refreshing the small pond at night!
The evening sun that glows on the forest now sinks;
Near the water is coolness.
Making a fan of a leaf, I sit down;
Quietly I chant a poem or two.
What I wanted was not anything big --
A little more than 10 feet square filled with water.
From the leaves of the lotus fall clear dew-drops;
Duckweed blooms, fish swim at their pleasure.

In the midst of our busy lives, how wonderful that "10 feet square" of water sounds.

Fortunately, there are still many fine gardens in Japan where we can enjoy the refreshing sights and sounds of water and the wildlife it always attracts. Even the famous stone garden of Ryoanji Temple, in Kyoto, is part of a much larger garden, which includes a fine pond named Kyoyochi made in the 12th century.

I visited the garden on a hot day in early summer, when it was fringed by dewy, purple kakitsubata irises and covered with the pink flowers of suiren (water lilies). A young woman walking past called to her friend, "Look at the splendid lotuses!" Since the plants are somewhat similar, it was an understandable mistake, but it was still too early for hasu (lotuses), which flower in mid-July.

Besides, large pink or white lotus flowers rise above the water on long stalks, while the smaller water lilies and their leaves (called "lily pads") float on top. After the flowers are fertilized, the lotus bends its cone-shaped seed chambers toward the water, but the water lily sinks back below the surface to deliver its seeds directly to the mud.

The lotus (Nelumbium speciosum) is native to India and China and, according to Buddhism, these beautiful flowers, which rise unstained from the muddy water, were the very first blooms in this world. In Japan, a traditional summer pastime was to row a small boat among refreshing lotus flowers as they opened at dawn.

Just as the dragonflies that dart above the water have an ancestry dating back millions of years, so the lotus and water lily are among the world's most ancient flowering plants. However, there were too many water lilies in the pond at Ryoanji, and three gardeners were drifting about in a boat, pulling up armfuls of leaves and buds. It seemed a pity, but the pond did look more attractive with patches of clear water to reflect the sky.

With its small, arching bridge, the scene reminded me of Monet's water garden at Giverny in France. That is the Japanese-inspired garden where the artist painted his famous studies of water lilies. Monet was fascinated with the different effects of light, and he made a pond garden because a pond is always changing, and offering new reflections of the world around it.

However, a true Japanese garden is designed for more than seeing: it is designed for the pleasures of contemplation. This struck me very clearly at another pond in Kyoto, one in the garden of Ninna-ji Temple. This temple was founded in 888, as the residence of the retired emperor Uda, and thereafter it became a quiet retreat for several emperors who retired from court life.

The ex-emperor's villa is approached through a dry courtyard garden with a magnificent pine tree. Its lower branches are trained close to the ground and suggest a peacock trailing its gorgeous tail feathers. Passing a more formal courtyard you suddenly encounter a completely different scene: a pond garden set against a lush hillside of trees.

At this point every visitor instinctively sits down on the veranda to contemplate the scene. After a while you appreciate the subtle movement of water cascading into the garden, then swirling slowly through two linked ponds. The day I visited, a brilliant blue kingfisher was swooping into the water, and returning to a branch leaning over the pond.

White granite sand is raked along the full length of the garden, breaking into moss as it nears the pond. By moonlight, this glimmering sand must make the garden more mysterious. By day, it accentuates the coolness of the water, and the greenness of the trees. Even in a small courtyard garden, this combination of white sand, moss and water makes a refreshing sight in summer.

Another charming use of water that you can see everywhere in Kyoto (and Japan) is a legacy of the tea ceremony. This is the tsukubai (water basin), which is often made from a stone and set along the roji (dewy path) which leads to the tea-ceremony hut. As a sign of purity and respect, the guests rinse their hands at this basin before entering the hut. Since all are considered equal in the harmonious atmosphere of the tea ceremony, the tsukubai is set low to encourage a sense of humility (tsukubau means to bend down). The sight of water seeping out of the basin, and green moss slowly covering the stones, creates a sense of timelessness and tranquillity. And in the feverish heat of summer, the sensation of coolness and rest.